Mary Frances Heaton
Mary Frances Heaton was a patient at the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum in the mid 1800s. Mary conveyed her frustration with the asylum system by sewing intricate and beautifully composed samplers. Several of these are in the Mental Health Museum collection. Every stitch, every tiny piece of embroidered coloured material shows the intensity and patience Mary devoted to articulating her story.
These samplers are an invaluable piece of social history, giving us a rare opportunity to hear the voice and experiences of a patient in the Asylum.
What the records tell us about Mary
From the records we know Mary entered the West Riding Asylum in September 1837 aged 37. She had been arrested in Doncaster and was transferred from Doncaster Gaol to the Asylum in Wakefield where she remained until 1873. She was then sent to the South Yorkshire Asylum, where she died in 1878.
Her early case notes use words such as ‘wildness’, ‘flightiness’ ‘excited’ and ‘irritable’ to describe her condition. Later entries refer to periods when she was ‘abusive and violent, beating and striking the patients’. By the late 1840s, her records describe her as ‘extremely crazy’ and ‘much more insane’. In the 1860s, a case note tells us she now ‘keeps herself shut up in her bedroom’ writing and painting.
Throughout her time in the Asylum her ‘general health’ is usually described as good. In 1839 it was noted that she had not had a period for six years. At the time this was seen as a cause of mental illness. Her prescription was ‘electric shocks to be passed through the pelvis every second day’. There is no note of how long this continued.
There are several references in her case notes to Mary’s creative activities – needlework, writing and painting.
She escapes from the asylum in 1843 but is brought back, vowing to escape again, although there is no record that she did so.
Our Most Gracious Sovereign
The Queen Victoria
Is most respectfully petitioned to affix her Royal Seal to this sampler in token of approbation thereof. Mrs Henden Widow, nurse for more than 10 years in the ward where Mrs Seymour is confined – on seeing her for the first time July 1841 was much struck by her appearance and described her as “fair to look upon” etc etc in a way that was most amusing, as well as complimentary, one step leading to another, Mrs Seymour informed her that once upon a time a certain noble Lord had been of the same opinion. And finally in acknowledgement of numerous trifling obligations, making up in number what they want in weight, Mrs S. Promised her a present of 27L.
Lord John Seymour & Esther 2.16 1827
W 23cm x L26cm
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